Can a banjo play Bach? This Chicago musician will make you believe.

Categories: WBEZ Chicago

Michael Miles, who will play Bach’s Suites for Cello on the banjo this weekend at Evanston Space, has a new album that challenges what you think the instrument can do.

By Mark Guarino

Sept 14, 2023, 6:00am CT

At an early age, Michael Miles came to understand the cultural baggage that came from being a banjo player — that it was a primitive instrument and not sophisticated enough for the so-called fine arts.

Yet along the way he has helped change how many people hear the instrument by placing it within the setting of classical music, creating new compositions for it, and using it to perform none other than the works of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

On Sunday, Miles will perform Bach’s Suites I & III for Cello at Space in Evanston, accompanied by cellist Jill Kaeding. The music is captured on American Bach Revisited, a new album that includes a classical composition in five movements called “Chicago Suite” that is inspired by specific streets Miles has lived on throughout his 69 years.

The Bach project is not new — he first recorded and performed the same work by the composer 26 years ago, but with an alternate arrangement on the cello and paired with a different suite. This time he delved into the music both as a kind of escape, but also to challenge himself. The sound he was after, he said, was to make the banjo “more beautiful from its twangy sound, which is more of a traditional characteristic of bluegrass. The atmosphere of the recording, and the tone of the instruments were not common for a banjo recording.”

For Kaeding, playing with Miles is an opportunity to perform with someone who “transcends all genres and musical styles.” Even though the Bach piece was written for her instrument, she will play an accompanist role to his banjo, which Miles will play “note-for-note what Bach wrote for the cello,” she said.

“Initially it was one of the strangest things I ever heard,” she said. “But he figured out how to make it work.”

Miles has taken the banjo to places it’s not commonly found: The Ravinia Festival, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and even the Royal Opera Theater in Marrakesh, Morocco.

But he remains connected to one of the instrument’s greatest evangelists: Pete Seeger, the former member of The Weavers and social activist whose songs “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn” and others are today part of the instrument’s vernacular. Seeger reached out to Miles in 1988 to compliment him on an album Miles had recorded that placed traditional folk songs like “Little Sadie” and “Red-Haired Boy” in new settings.

“One of the most beautiful records I’ve heard in all my 70 years … it’s enough to make me want to learn the banjo all over again,” Seeger wrote. The two men corresponded for the following 25 years and ended up performing together many times.

“That letter changed my life,” Miles said.

How Miles got to that point started when he was 22. He put down the guitar he was playing in rock bands and used $500 his mother had given him to buy a banjo — the money had come with instructions to purchase something that would honor his father, who had just died. He still plays it today.

Unlike most banjo players, Miles didn’t learn the Southern tradition that emanated from Appalachia, but instead found his calling in France while studying abroad as a student at the University of Illinois. A self-taught fingerpicker, Miles was playing in a street band, sleeping in campgrounds and driving around the French countryside in a van. Over a campfire one night, another banjo player joined his group and started playing a style he had never heard before — highly rhythmic, but incorporating melody, harmony and even percussion.

“Mysterious and magnificent,” Miles thought of the clawhammer style he was witnessing. “That was the beginning for me.”

He ended up writing a book on the subject and eventually, back home in Chicago, became the program director at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he helped expand the definition of folk music to include different continents, percussion and dance. Enrollment grew from 200 to more than 4,000 students over his 14-year tenure. He also worked as a freelance musician, wrote several books and freely used theater and one-man shows to promote the expansiveness of his chosen instrument.

One show, “From Senegal to Seeger,” tracks the banjo’s evolution from West Africa to this country through songs performed on five different incarnations of the instrument.

The projects are not detours but contribute to what Miles has been chasing for decades: to discover new limits of sound for the instrument and in doing so, free it from tradition. He is also challenging audience expectations. By transcribing Bach into clawhammer-style, then memorizing it to perform live, Miles has been further inspired to create new voices for his banjo and Kaeding’s cello. The resulting instrumental, “Chicago Suite,” which he will perform at Space this weekend, is rooted in city life. The five movements are inspired by streets he lived on or frequented: Rosedale, Broadway, Glenwood, Lower Wacker and, of course, the classic Chicago alley, “a place of magic and danger,” he said.

In the composition, you can hear the manic energy of Broadway at night, the low sustaining notes of the cello with the banjo darting around them; similarly, you envision a sunny weekend morning on Rosedale, or mischief as the instruments detour down the alley. The lively interplay of these instruments — in harmony but often pursuing different melodies until they inevitably sync up — feels natural despite their unusual pairing.

For Kaeding, unusual is normal. The Racine native is a veteran of Chamber Blues, the fusion classical and blues group headed by Corky Siegel, and she has also worked with Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. She first played Bach’s cello suites in high school and she teaches it often to students.

“It can be kind of daunting and unforgiving. If you don’t love it, it’s not worth playing. Because there’s nowhere to hide,” she said. “If you have weakness in your playing it can be seen really quick.”

Combining classical works with unorthodox instruments — or classical instruments playing unorthodox music — is a trend she sees happening everywhere, on the stages of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to “Final Fantasy” concerts featuring classical musicians playing music from the popular video game.

Bach will dominate the Space performance, but the duo will also perform guitar and cello duets, some by more familiar composers such as Carole King and Stevie Wonder. Miles also plans to visit Germany this fall and travel to Kothën where Bach wrote the cello suites about 300 years ago. And yes, he’ll bring his banjo.

“I’ll sit on the front step,” he said, “and play until somebody chases me away.”

If you go: Michael Miles will perform on Sunday afternoon at Space in Evanston, 1245 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets from $12.

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